Golden Heartbreak: Kenny Omega And The Art of Long-term Storytelling

Kenny Omega knows how to make an impact.

In the chilling aftermath of Winter is Coming, he shook the core of All Elite Wrestling’s heart, as shocked faces and jeering screams from wrestlers filled Daily’s Place. Omega rushed out the arena with his longtime friend, and screwjob accomplice, Don Callis, and for my friends and I who wouldn’t stop blowing up each other’s Twitter notifications, we couldn’t believe it.

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He did the unexpected again.

I followed his story, gathered all the clues, studied every BTE episode through a microscope, hoping for a clear answer on Omega’s character arc, and yet, he curveballed my expectations in the best way, setting the stage for one of the most intriguing wrestling storylines we have seen in a while.

In my 15 years of watching professional wrestling, I have never seen a storyline elicit this much of an emotional response from viewers.

However, this is Kenny Omega’s biggest strength; it speaks volumes about his ability to craft long-term stories, and no one knows more about slow-burn storytelling than the man himself.

His story is exhilarating, emotional, and dark. When you piece together every single clue that suggests a return of the Cleaner, it’s one of the most mind-blowing pieces of long-term storytelling that has ever existed in professional wrestling. It’s amazing how much depth Kenny has built into his character, and here, I will unpack the clues that are significant to AEW’s current storyline.

How did we get to this point? Why has his character taken such a chaotic turn?

This is the story of The Cleaner: His Rise, His Fall, and His Resurrection

-This Is Cleaner-

“I'm here to clean up the junior division, and guess what, Taguchi? It starts with you.”

-Kenny Omega, NJPW Power Struggle 2014

For those who either need a refresher or are unfamiliar with this part of Kenny’s story, the Cleaner was a gimmick that Kenny Omega embodied during his New Japan Pro Wrestling run. He has cited Resident Evil’s Albert Wesker and Sylvester Stallone’s character in the 1986 movie Cobra as the primary inspirations in developing it. Debuting in the promotion at NJPW Power Struggle 2014, Kenny was thrust right into the promotion’s limelight as he was revealed to be both the newest member of the Bullet Club, and the next challenger for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship, which Ryusuke Taguchi held at the time.

Note his dominance, his intense demeanor, and the way he commands the whole room with every word he speaks on the mic. This is what the Cleaner was, and it sold many fans on Kenny Omega’s potential as a top star in the junior heavyweight division. The iconic aviators, the black leather jacket, his gloves, his hair, the total package had arrived in New Japan, and it would catapult Kenny into stardom and further acclaim.

Kenny Omega would end up taking the Junior Heavyweight title from Taguchi a couple months later at Wrestle Kingdom 9. Though he would experience a wave of losses and wins through the rest of 2015, he continued to wreck havoc in the division, and by the beginning of 2016, had not only dethroned AJ Styles as leader of the Bullet Club, but also formed the Elite alongside the Young Bucks. This is where he began to strike gold.

The Cleaner continued to clean out New Japan of its accomplishments by winning the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship, and more importantly, becoming the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the G1 Climax, winning the opportunity to face Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in one of my favorite wrestling matches of all-time.

Despite losing to Okada, Kenny would regain his momentum afterwards by becoming the inaugural winner of the IWGP United States Championship. With each additional accolade stacked onto Kenny Omega’s resume, and with each high-profile match gaining further notoriety in the industry, it’s no wonder why many fans consider him to be one of the greatest wrestlers of his era.

By the time Kenny Omega won the IWGP Heavyweight title from Okada in 2018, he was more than just The Cleaner. He was the Best Bout Machine, able to stop anything and anyone in his path. He had delivered several 5 and 6 star matches in NJPW, and "Omega vs Okada IV" would receive a record breaking 7 stars from Wrestling Observer, going down in history as one of the greatest high stakes wrestling bouts of all time. It seemed like nothing could derail him. The Bucks, Cody, Adam, and even Kota Ibushi were on his side. He had everything. He was everything.

And this is where his story gets dark.

-Changing the World?-

“Rather than try to explain what 'change the world' means, the cast and crew of All Elite Wrestling will finally be to show you how we will finally change the world.”

-Kenny Omega, AEW Double or Nothing rally 2019

Ever since Kenny Omega signed with All Elite Wrestling, a vocal portion of his fanbase has decried his performance in the company as underwhelming compared to previous years. While it’s an understandable sentiment to have (I mean, I honestly can’t think of ANY wrestler in the past 10 years who has had an astounding rise to the top like Kenny), I believe that this is all according to Kenny’s long-term storytelling plans; he wants his audience to think this, and he wants them to invest in the narrative he’s crafted: he isn’t performing as well as he did in Japan, and he is absolutely self-aware about it.

So when Being the Elite episode 219, the episode preceding All Out, ended with a still image of his infamous aviators, the internet went nuts.

This is the power of Kenny Omega. His genius derives from knowing his audience’s wants, yet subverting their expectations, deliberately planting a nod to his previous character in order to generate buzz for his next move in AEW. Now that he’s the company’s champion, pushing his former tag team partner Adam Page out of the picture, he can finally get that clean break.

But what if I told you that this isn’t the only clue that he’s sprinkled into AEW programming in the past year? What if I told you that he’s only getting started?

The bridge between NJPW and AEW has always existed, in the sense that a substantial portion of AEW’s hardcore fanbase also followed the Elite through their New Japan run. Kenny Omega is utilizing his previous connections, his personal lore, and his experiences to master the art of long-term storytelling, and he has done a brilliant job at this. Some of these clues are blatantly obvious, while others require some sort of prior knowledge about him, but when you piece everything together, the result is a brilliant, dark story about a broken man who yearns to achieve stardom in the United States.

-The Cleaner and the Paradigm Shift-

"We need....The Old Kenny. We need that Kenny."

Matt Jackson, BTE Episode 172

Being the Elite has made heavy teases towards the Cleaner coming to AEW as far back as last year. Episode 173 shows Kenny Omega contemplating the direction of his character. He ends up throwing his aviators away in the trash, but his echoing voice, “I’m Just Getting Started”, suggests a deeper meaning to this episode’s ending.

Coming off of two major losses against Chris Jericho and Pac, Kenny was struggling to find stability and direction. In the episodes preceding this one, he was shown to be erratic towards his friends, not responding to their messages with clarity. But he’s in the United States now. Here he is starting a new promotion with his best friends. He doesn’t need the Cleaner. He never needed him. Yes, it brought him immense success and catapulted his career to great heights, but he never needed a gimmick, a character, to make him happy. He can rely on his own merits, right?

It was clear that in the lead up to his match against Jon Moxley at Full Gear that Kenny Omega was not in a healthy state of mind. Yet, he continued to drop hints about his aggressive behavior returning, including a broom spot tease against Moxley, reminiscent of the sweeps he would mimic in his NJPW entrances as the Cleaner.

As the weeks pass, his mind slips further. In the October 30th edition of Dynamite, a short clip plays before his viral Sans entrance. A voice that totally does not resemble the New Japan logo at all beckons for the Cleaner to return. It knows that he’s still inside Kenny, and he attempts to manipulate him by feeding him lies about his friends. It also foreshadows the impending loneliness that Kenny will feel, the emotions that will follow him through his loss of the tag team championships at All Out, and the rage that will consume his heart when he battles Moxley again.

Through his magic touch, all of this came true. But more on that later.

At Full Gear, he finally channels the combative energy and spirit that he had been feeling for weeks, and despite stepping into Mox’s world of hardcore, violent wrestling, still loses his dignity. His loss has affected him so much that his tweet from the day afterwards is still pinned to his profile today. To Kenny, his behavior at Full Gear was his first battle in fighting off the darkness in his heart.

Had the Elite not been at ringside during the match, he may have been even more aggressive to Moxley, and may have pushed himself to his ultimate limits. He refused to give into the voice, the voice of the Cleaner, and still stuck with his friends in the aftermath of Full Gear. He entered the tag team division with Hangman Adam Page to escape the loneliness that still crept on his mind, and that has stalked him for months.

Surely, he still doesn’t need the Cleaner if he has The Elite on his side, right?

-A Lost Lover-

“Doesn't it feel good to be alone.....?”

??????, AEW Dynamite - October 30th, 2019

Once he recovered from Moxley's devastating beat down, Kenny Omega made the jump to AEW's tag team division with his Elite partner Adam Page. Their friendship looked innocent at first glance. They won the tag team titles on Chris Jericho’s cruise, and they have helped elevate the AEW tag team division to become the hot spot for great wrestling every week.

However, as tension rose between Adam and the Young Bucks, and as FTR cemented themselves as top contenders for the title belts, Kenny’s sanity began to slip again. No longer was his tag team championship reign the bandage to his wounds; his emotional turmoil was still present.

The Cleaner teases would return when the Young Bucks warned Colt Cabana about Kenny adding aviator glasses to his shopping list on Amazon, stating that Kenny had a vendetta against him and would rip him apart at first sight again. With every passing BTE and Dynamite episode, Kenny grows a little more agitated at his friends and loved ones, and finally, at Fight for the Fallen, he breaks, attacking Marko Stunt at the end of The Elite’s match against Jurassic Express.

What’s most intriguing to me about this moment is the gesture Kenny makes before laying the smackdown on Marko; it’s the kiss that’s used in his ‘Goodbye and Goodnight’ sign-off back in New Japan, and it’s a major hint that suggests an aggressive Kenny Omega is coming to AEW. In the weeks following this match and leading up to Full Gear, he continues to take his rage out on his opponents, and eventually on Colt Cabana as well.

Everything culminates at All Out when FTR accomplishes their plan: break the Elite apart and claim the tag team titles as rightfully theirs, stealing the last remaining hope Kenny had. For the first time in years, it seems like Kenny is finally all alone.

A common theme that I have noticed with Kenny Omega during his tag team reign is that, despite his successes, he still feels lost. Despite having the Elite next to him, he’s in a new country he’s never toured before or found widespread success in, and even though he was a tag team champion, it pales in comparison to what he accomplished as the Cleaner.

A tag team win with Adam Page is fantastic for his win-loss record, but it doesn’t hold up to his 7 star classics with Okada or his IWGP US title reign. It’s a detail that even the Young Bucks have pointed out, which agitated Kenny.

I look at Kenny’s character arc since he signed with AEW last year, and I ask one question: Is it the Bucks, Adam Page, or Cody, who are the source of his frustrations?

Or is it someone else?

I’d like to return to the Undertale entrance from October. Out of all the friends that are shown in that video, a silhouetted figure is front and center out of everyone, holding a trophy that resembles the G1 Climax’s. This person is meant to be Kenny Omega’s former tag team partner, Kota Ibushi.

And he’s the catalyst for Kenny Omega’s story.

Understanding his role requires some knowledge of New Japan’s lore, but this also makes a strong case and provides evidence for AEW establishing some sort of connection with the promotion, at least in terms of subtle storytelling. The Golden Lovers impacted Japan’s tag team wrestling scene, becoming the innovators of high-flying action and synced chemistry. Their bond has continued for more than a decade, with storylines spanning around the world while Omega was in Japan and Ibushi was in the US during WWE NXT's Cruiserweight Classic. When the Golden Lovers finally reunited in NJPW after a storyline of strife and heartache, the reaction from Japanese crowds was legendary. It was one of the greatest stories ever told in wrestling, and remains a part of Omega's backdrop even now in AEW.

If you’ve followed Kenny Omega for years, you’ll know how much his relationship with Ibushi has meant to him for his wrestling persona, and it doesn’t surprise me that this is still being leveraged for an emotional story. And it’s working.

In the last moments of Moxley and Omega’s Lights Out match, Kenny channels his inner Ibushi and attempts his signature Phoenix Splash. From a storytelling perspective, he has worn out everything in himself to fight Moxley, and the last remaining hope that he has, the last spark of light that lies in his heart, is the memory of tagging with Ibushi --- the only thing he truly believes in anymore. The only memory that gives him enough strength to kick out of Mox's pin, only to fall to the Paradigm Shift.

During the AEW Revolution tag team match, the Young Bucks used the Golden Lovers’ finisher, the Golden Trigger, on Kenny Omega, and he immediately kicked out at 1. From his behavior and emotional state, Kenny is still holding onto the memories of his previous career, and when you consider his perspective, you begin to unfold a sad narrative that haunts the potential of his career going forward.

Kenny achieved significant heights in Japan. He was successful, had a loving tag team partner by his side, and didn’t have to worry about the pressures of running a new wrestling promotion. However, in the United States, it’s the complete opposite. Comparing his trajectory in Japan versus now is like looking at two completely different careers.

Kenny lacks stability. Stability in his life, stability in his career.

He can’t trust Adam Page to be a reliable partner. In fact, Adam is nothing like Ibushi. He can’t trust himself to deliver on everyone’s high expectations about his career. Kenny Omega has clearly been in a bad mental state for a year, and everything is only getting started.

-He’s Just Getting Started-

“After the eliminator title tournament, suddenly, my name’s brought back up. Suddenly, it’s the return of the Cleaner, the return of the Best Bout Machine, the return of the true best in the world.”

Kenny Omega, AEW Dynamite, 11/25/2020

The fallout from All Out changed the playing field for Kenny Omega. With the wrestling world weighing down heavily on him, a path suddenly opened: a path towards darkness, thanks to personal events in the past year. Jon Moxley is the total package for American wrestling that he isn’t, his mentality is shot from constant criticism and failures, and his relationship with Adam Page crumbled. All of this is crashing on Kenny hard. Stability no longer exists for him. There’s no turning back to Japan. With Kota Ibushi looking to greener pastures due to his second G1 win, his home is broken.

He pressed the emergency button. He embodied the Cleaner. He sent hell to freeze over the participants of AEW’s number one contender tournament, effortlessly unleashing One Winged Angel after One Winged Angel. He became obsessed with winning the belt, even destroying the integrity of his AEW victories by enlisting Don Callis, his mentor, to screw Moxley out of his win.

The icing on the cake is sweet for Omega, as he responded to a year-old pinned tweet with his reassured claim to total control. Finally, his mission has been accomplished. He’s on top of the wrestling world again, a position he feels he deserves.

But with his moral integrity damaged, with showing little remorse over his actions, does his win feel genuine? Was this a true showcase of his abilities, or has the stress gone to his head so much that he was desperate to hurt everyone in his path, as long as it guaranteed the title around his waist?

These questions are simply rhetorical, yet it speaks to the complexities of Kenny Omega’s storytelling. I trust him to create a compelling, thought-provoking story that only the medium of professional wrestling can pull off, and that’s the beauty of it all. After following the Elite for several years, especially Kenny Omega, the payoff for all of their stories, for all of their struggles and faults, is going to elevate the main event scene.

Investing in character arcs, planning and executing stories that take years to develop, giving fans relatable personalities to empathize with, traveling hours to shows to see the action climax in a wrestling match: this is the remarkable power of long-term storytelling in wrestling. I truly believe that Kenny Omega is one of the greatest masterminds in the industry today, and there will never be another bright, unique mind like his in wrestling ever again.

He’s only getting started, and he can only go up from here.

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